I absolutely love interactive marketing. I love the planning and design, the development process, and everything in between. I love the feeling of making brands come alive with sound and motion as engaging experiences; I love the thrill of learning something new and working it into a client project as an unexpected deliverable. Yet somehow the interactive projects we digital designers and developers lovingly slave over, pouring our hearts and souls into, at some point, become these colossally befuddling realms for many of our colleagues to wrap their warm arms of embrace around. Think of the comical scene in Back To The Future where Marty McFly meets Doc for the first time after traveling back in time to the year 1955 -this scenario illustrates perfectly what I’m about to explore.
Marketing Was Simple In 1955
In 2010, let’s be honest, things can get really complicated and bogged-down in technical detail on the Web. Interactive marketing campaigns typically begin with vexing and perhaps technically elusive questions like: How can we monetize Facebook APIs for our clients? -or bigger, loaded questions like: How can we leverage the interactive space to differentiate and create brand awareness for product ‘X’? -or the quintessential question of our time: Where do we begin?
These are likely some of the thought provoking questions floating around senior VP marketing strategy meetings of late -and I’m willing to bet there are plenty of seasoned advertising professionals out there scratching their heads wondering where exactly to start with our clients digital marketing initiatives. Moreover, how best to leverage interactive experiences and social media as defining characteristics of a successful product, brand, or service.
I believe the answer lies with people. Interdisciplinary marketing, design, and technology teams working closely and collaboratively to reach a common goal: mastery of the digital domain.
This I am afraid, has not yet occurred. Often, digital teams struggle to cohesively work together and communicate in a clear tone our non-digital colleagues can easily understand. Web marketing is undergoing rapid change where everyone seems compelled to get up to speed on technology ‘X’ or social media app ‘Y’. It’s as though we have become hypnotized to a certain extent by all this new-found technological titillation and have forgotten that people and teamwork are what drive innovation -people are what create success in digital -not gadgets and apps.
This is how I would define success in digital -or any field for that matter: success is the result of collaborative teamwork and strong relationships built on fostering trust, mutual respect, and open communication. Remove or impede any one of these three elements and you severely undermine the opportunities for [digital] success in my opinion.
Case in point: the endlessly monotonous debates(1) surrounding Flash support for the iPhone and iPad -arguments focused on technology ‘X’ or standard ‘Y'; Apple is doing ‘A’, Adobe is doing ‘B'; device ‘Z’ doesn’t support thing v2.0 blah blah blah, …and so on. C’mon, these kind of debates are healthy once in a while, but now it’s getting a little tedious. Maybe it’s just easier for a lot of designers and developers out there to contribute to the prevailing cynicism rather than finding creative ways to move forward.
For digital marketers though, it can be fascinating to sit back and watch these debates unfold. At the same time, we could acknowledge these conversations fuel a form of technological determinism that will continue to breed significant evolution into the way digital advertising agencies function. Of course, it’s also fun to watch Mad Men and visualize the good old days of advertising, but unfortunately agencies today have much more on their plate to think about if they want to remain competitive.
As the marketplace evolves and our individual lifestyles become ever more dependent upon digital devices and mobile applications, the process of nurturing successful interactive business and marketing campaigns becomes an increasingly complex model to visualize. Gone are the days of simply launching a brochure-style Web site with static hard-coded content only to be updated on a random, infrequent basis.
Today, digital marketing collateral exists as a dynamic platform for engaging in real-time conversation with people. Interactive experiences now define brands and their associated digital properties have the capacity to reach larger audiences -and with greater levels of sophistication and personalization like never before.
Buried deep beneath the Web’s mystifying façade of Joomla SEO extensions, ASPX server-side includes, and XML-driven AS3 FLV playback components (-do you really care what these things mean?) lie beautifully elegant solutions for competing brands looking for more robust consumer mind share. Yet at the same time, with this constantly evolving DNA driving much of the Web’s underlying structure, we must invariably contend with greater levels of difficulty and technological abstraction potentially undermining the viability of our marketing and executional strategies.
Are We On The Same Page?
Consider for a moment the typical interactive kick-off meeting or creative client pitch (hypothetically speaking) for Brand X Web site or campaign. On the client side, several self-appointed digital development experts, who could probably ramble off the pros/cons of every conceivable Web tool or technology from ASP to XML, critically evaluate look and feel concepts by voicing their concerns. “I have reservations over this homepage channel (dev pointing to Web mock-up on wall) -how do you expect this to work in jQuery with our proprietary CMS back-end tool?
Good question, but perhaps we can address legitimate technical concerns outside of the creative discovery meeting.
This common scenario illustrates the relative, dare I say, immaturity of our field. That is, the inclination of Web teams spearheading the creation of digital business assets to perhaps become somewhat preoccupied with the technical intricacies and back-end inner workings of a Web site or application rather than what people see and experience on the surface.
Not that I am diminishing the role or importance of standards-based development, it’s just from my perspective conversations in many interactive marketing meetings tend to become unnecessarily focused on technology, driven by “what’s not possible” in terms of constraints (e.g. browser caveats, OS/platform concerns) rather than by “what could be possible” from a creative, brand, and user experience perspective.
Maybe it would be helpful to acknowledge that on any given project every team member is potentially on a different page in terms of experience, expertise, and yes, technical concern -which do in fact represent important aspects of any given Web site or application.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Sometimes we all fail to take a step back and visualize the bigger picture on the digital projects we aspire to succeed and roll-out smoothly. Our example interactive kick off meeting mentioned above illustrates one of the central problems working to covertly segregate digital from the more established and better understood business disciplines.
Digital teams face innumerable challenges -and no, I’m not talking about things like the absurd and tediously ongoing support of IE 6, but softer issues, like breaking many of the common stereotypes held by our non-digital colleagues.
Here are a couple doozies:
1) digital development teams are regarded merely as service providers -commodities relegated to simply executing ideas rather than actively participating in idea shaping campaign planning and strategy.
2) collaborating with digital development teams can be an intimidating and frustrating experience because of their tendency to focus on esoteric technical jargon (e.g. cryptic 3-letter acronyms describing various Web technologies).
The Way Forward
Yeah, I suppose digital-centric teams do involuntarily put up these road blocks and obstacles to projects (point #2 above) by elevating technical constraints as the drivers of digital marketing collateral above all else. It really doesn’t need to be this way, but interactive teams can have an absolute uncanny ability to intimidate the heck out of our non-technical colleagues when trying to articulate the finer points of Web application development (which may unfortunately lead us to point #1 above).
A few weeks ago when I was thinking about ideas for this post, I had an epiphany when one of my colleagues was showing me the latest jQuery UI toolsets. I tweeted jQuandary was this funny language many clients were speaking fluently; suggesting clients really didn’t understand a lot of the finer points surrounding digital executions; that they were the problem why interactive was taking so long to permeate the traditional pillars of advertising.
But now, after thinking about this for the past week, I wonder if we might be the problem. Quite possibly, this notion of the Web’s inherent technical ambiguity coupled with Web development teams as these gifted magicians capable of such magnificent and transient manipulations of the black box we know as the Internet.
This very well could be a real phenomenon impeding digital -or maybe it has more to do with digital teams taking greater steps to communicate more effectively with our non-digital counterparts.
Maybe code speaks louder than words, but many [of us] digital designers and developers are horribly inept at articulating to people -in a clear and non-technical tone -exactly what it is we do, how we do it, and why our clients should keep paying us to do it.
Digital campaigns should ideally begin with softer, less production oriented questions outside the domain of code and browser compliance worship. More critical questions need to surface sooner in the process. For example: How can we engage people in meaningful conversations and experiences online while enhancing the equity of brand ‘X’? -the technical elements will fall into place later.
Conclusions Sound Authoritative
I do not claim to have any magical silver bullet solutions for improving the synergy between technical and non-technical teams moving forward with digital.
I do think of jQuandary not as an unfamiliar programming language or misguided project on it’s sixth round of revisions, but as a very real place we all end up invariably at some point (sometimes quite frequently) during our working lives despite our very best efforts to orchestrate smooth work flows.
Sometimes the digital marketing projects we endeavor to succeed reach challenging obstacles or just simply don’t start off on a positive note. Perhaps important details are missing from overview or creative brief documents (if they exist at all) or time lines fall apart and it feels as though the people we’re supposedly collaborating with are from the planet Mars speaking an alien language.
In digital marketing -or any other field for that matter, the notion of jQuandary, that is, momentary (or god forbid, prolonged) states of complete disarray, confusion and miscommunication on any given project, are in fact unavoidable realities of collaborative team work. Much like the common cold, no project is immune to the symptoms -every company -every team -every person catches the bug sooner or later regardless of how rigorously we attempt to fortify our defenses.
(1) I have no absolutely criticism of Daniel Eran Dilger’s excellent post: An Adobe Flash developer on why the iPad can’t use Flash. Daniel proposes many constructive ideas for developers interested in potential solutions to the current lack of Adobe Flash support on the Apple iPad and other multi-touch devices. The ensuing debate in the comments section on the other hand, contains several heated arguments and a few scathing remarks.